Facebook: The Sorrow And The Seating

by , Dec 18, 2012, 4:59 PM
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Last week at MadBlog, my “Best Spots of the Year” column ended with a mention of empty chairs. Yup -- I suggested that the year’s winningest commercial, Chrysler’s “Half-Time in America,” inadvertently led Clint Eastwood to commit his unhinged monologue involving an innocent seating unit at the 2012 Republican National Convention.

Here in part deux, my nominee for worst spot of the year also comes from powerhouse agency Wieden + Kennedy, and also involves -- wait for it -- empty chairs!

Given that everything W+K produces is sophisticated and beautiful in some way, my contender for worst is hardly as ugly, screeching, or annoying as your typical late-night, low-budget spot. (Yes, Miracle Bra, I’m talking about you.)

No -- this is another stratosphere of bad, entirely. It’s highest-form-of-propaganda bad, drink-your-own-Kool-Aid, worst-form-of-humblebragging bad. Indeed, who could have predicted that when launching its first-ever TV commercial, Facebook could achieve such fall-flat-on-its-face badness? In trying to be humble, it comes off as obtuse and arrogant.

A little background: In the beginning, before tech platforms were our leading brands, they tended to eschew television advertising like the plague. Indeed, the idea of a “broadcast” was seen as a remnant of the Dark Ages, soon to be replaced by everything digital.

Then, a few years back, Google ran a spot on the Super Bowl, of all places, and hell didn’t freeze over. Rather, the company got raves. The commercial was modest, charming, and entirely rooted in the brand. It never strayed from being a simple product demo. By showing some simple search terms being typed into a Google window, it cleverly conveyed the arc of a love story -- from first meeting to buying baby equipment. The genius was in suggesting a full-blown human journey in a few keystrokes.  

Now, of course, tech platforms have become major TV advertisers. And after a troubling IPO, Facebook released its first TV spot in October, to “honor” its one billion users. The result, “The Things that Connect Us,” is a 90-second commercial created very much in the classic Wieden style, an artfully designed manifesto with a poetic voiceover and haunting music.

The director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, delivers visuals that crackle with magical realism. There’s unexpected beauty in every frame. The message, however, is a real head-scratcher, especially for any of the billion or so regular users of Facebook.

It’s always fun to look over your shoulder at someone’s profile -- after all, Facebook is a service for voyeurs. But nothing in the spot is recognizable. Rather, it features an almost entirely analog world, with a female announcer likening Facebook to various inanimate objects.

"Chairs,”  she says. “Anyone can sit on a chair, and if the chair is large enough, they can sit down together and tell jokes or make up stories or just listen. Chairs are for people, and that’s why chairs are like Facebook."

Sadly, this is not a parody from The Onion. (Although the spot immediately fostered a ton of parodies, including one that graphically substituted “toilets” for chairs.)  The announcer goes on to say Facebook is also like an “airplane,” a “dance floor,” and “basketball.” Also like a “doorbell.” Why not sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles?

Watching brings on a case of cognitive dissonance. It’s like an exercise for ad students, taken to the most ridiculous limits of meaninglessness. Or perhaps it’s the kind of treatise only a prodigious stoner could muster, or love.

Okay, I do get it -- the spot celebrates Facebook's ability to serve as a forum, a gathering place, a source of new ideas and shared joy of discovery. But its out-there analogies and aggressive pre-techiness are not only disingenuous, but the antithesis of what people want to hear about Facebook.

Are the creatives trying to show some morally pure agrarian society, where there is no technology? We see people reading newspapers (accent on paper) and clothbound books. Kids play in the street. The only phone shown is a “Mad Men”-era desk number with a rotary dial! 

What’s the point of all this? Pepperidge Farm remembers? Suggesting nostalgia for a time before we had to worry about privacy issues and getting our personal information sold off to the highest bidder?

This spot builds to a truly woo-woo statement about how we are not alone in the universe. Indeed, in the spot, children play face to face.

But the reality of Facebook is that it offers the illusion of connectedness to those who are indeed alone. Really, have you ever gotten an invitation to “come over and Facebook”?

The chair thing seems like an immense cover-up. Why doesn’t the spot show the site, and some of the employees behind it, or how users have successfully championed social causes through it? Or tell us what’s in the works? At the very least, it could acknowledge how people really use Facebook: by accessing it through their smartphones or tapping away at their laptops. 

Instead, this is infuriatingly non-transparent. How indifferent can the company be to a loyal user’s intelligence?

It makes me want to talk -- or not just talk, work up a tirade -- at a chair.

15 comments on "Facebook: The Sorrow And The Seating".

  1. Michael Porte from The Field (social), WheresSpot
    commented on: December 18, 2012 at 5:54 p.m.
    Nicely said Barbara - it's why you are the Queen when it comes to real ad criticism! Thanks!
  2. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com
    commented on: December 18, 2012 at 6:16 p.m.
    thanks, Michael. The message is doubly infuriating in light of the info that came out today about Instagram using our photos and info.
  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited
    commented on: December 18, 2012 at 6:33 p.m.
    Your insight to clarity .... well, can we see you in congress soon ?
  4. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com
    commented on: December 18, 2012 at 7:41 p.m.
    No you, Paula. You totally represent!
  5. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER
    commented on: December 18, 2012 at 8 p.m.
    What is the objective of the commercial? Do you know why they are doing a commercial?
  6. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com
    commented on: December 18, 2012 at 8:37 p.m.
    Tom-- I think it was to show the soul and humanity at the core of FB. But instead it reveals the company's cold, cold, heart. What do you think the brief was?
  7. George Parker from Parker Consultants
    commented on: December 18, 2012 at 10:31 p.m.
    Barbara... Never forget that W+K is also responsible for the Velveeta lusty smithy who "rogers" housewives with his "Cheesy Skillet." The new Old Spice stuff with the footballer dressed as a bed is a bit embarrassing. Having said that. I just wrote a piece on UK ad site, moreaboutadvertising.com making W+K LONDON my agency of the year. The fact that Neil Christie, the MD, gets me drunk at W+K's expense every time I'm in London, has nothing to do with it. You also get my vote as the best TUBA playing ad writer of the year. Cheers/George
  8. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com
    commented on: December 18, 2012 at 10:35 p.m.
    Yeah, George-- I love the lusty smithy and almost everything the agency does otherwise. But this spot is terrible. Thanks for saying I'm the best tuba playing ad writer-- I think.
  9. George Parker from Parker Consultants
    commented on: December 18, 2012 at 10:49 p.m.
    Barbara... Shouldn't you be in bed now? Cheers/George
  10. Jonathan Hutter from Garrand
    commented on: December 19, 2012 at 9:25 a.m.
    Unfortunately after reading this column, I can't get "My Favorite Things" out of my head.
  11. Dave Brody from TechMediaNetwork
    commented on: December 19, 2012 at 9:32 a.m.
    Masterfully said, Ms. Lippert. I believe it was mostly an execution issue; the concept may have been: "we make the tech transparent, facilitating human interaction." But, yeah, it played clumsy at best. Not the first time Zuck's crew has come off totally tone deaf. Somebody should have spoken truth to power before it hit air. Somebody else should have heard them if they did.
  12. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com
    commented on: December 19, 2012 at 11:09 a.m.
    sorry Jonathan-- but this spot is very much like a brown paper package tied up with string. and Dave, yes, totally needed someone to speak truth to power! The Emperor's New Hoodie.
  13. Kevin Horne from Lairig Marketing
    commented on: December 20, 2012 at 12:51 p.m.
    Facebook is like Chinese Food parody: http://lairigmarketing.typepad.com/lairig_marketing/2012/10/the-runner-up-script-to-facebooks-chair-ad.html
  14. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com
    commented on: December 20, 2012 at 1:43 p.m.
    Kevin-- funny! Thanks. Below is how Facebook is like a Toilet. Careful where you watch it! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2vfxnfWGRA
  15. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER
    commented on: December 23, 2012 at 3:24 p.m.
    BARBARA, Brief--don't know. I assume the company is spending the money to help its stock price. It doesn't look like they are using the medium to get new members. To try to use a commercial to show you are warm and kindly, I guess you could. They could be Hallmark. But in this case--Facebook--it could be just ego massaging and nothing wrong with that.

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